Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement on Monday that official Labour policy is to support a second referendum on EU membership without the party leadership taking a definitive ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ stance has invited innumerable comparisons with a past Labour leader: Harold Wilson.
Wilson’s reputation is that of the arch-pragmatist who held his divided party together over Europe in the early 1970s through a series of tactical masterstrokes.
Wilson inserted a pledge to hold a referendum on British membership into Labour’s February 1974 election manifesto, while promising to renegotiate the terms of entry agreed by the Heath Government.
The Prime Minister allowed each member of his Cabinet to take a position in the referendum campaign, suspending collective responsibility.
Wilson then endorsed a vote to stay ‘in’ relatively late in the day, making a decisive impact on the pro-European campaign.
The campaign strategist Steve Howell insisted this week that Labour’s current leader should emulate Wilson’s approach, putting pragmatism before principle in his handling of European policy.
Howell cited the famous aphorism of Wilson: ‘If you can’t ride two horses at the same time, you shouldn’t be in the circus’.
Certainly, Corbyn’s insistence that he is willing to take Britain out of the EU if that is what the electorate decides is likely to inflame tensions with grassroots activists, on full display next week at the party conference in Brighton.
In fairness, Corbyn’s ambiguous position is not necessarily out of line with how post-war Labour leaders have handled Europe.
The party has mainly approached the issue of European integration cautiously and pragmatically. Labour’s stance on European integration has historically been defined by ‘Euro-caution’ rather than ‘Euro-fanaticism’.
The leadership have adopted a pragmatic ‘realist’ view of Europe as a consequence of their party’s ambivalence about the Community, and their awareness of the electoral constraints under which the party is operating.
The central issue for Labour’s leaders since 1945 has been about whether socialist internationalism entails full participation in the EEC or remaining apart from Europe, engaging in a variety of international alliances, particularly through the Commonwealth.
In the aftermath of World War Two, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin were adamantly opposed to Britain joining any federal association that was intended to strengthen the political unity of Europe.
According to the academic, John Callaghan, the post-war Labour Government, ‘wanted nothing to do with a customs union that would compromise the UK’s imperial role’.
Bevin insisted Britain was, ‘not just another European country’.
After 1945, the Labour leadership was committed to Britain playing a global, not merely a European role, acting as a ‘third force’ between the United States and Soviet Russia where, ‘the British would assume a position of leadership because of their special characteristics as a people’.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson began to develop a more positive approach to British participation, although they restated misgivings about European integration. Gaitskell warned about subjugating ‘a thousand years of British history’.
Wilson railed against the terms of entry negotiated by Harold Macmillan in 1961, and infamously denounced the Community as, ‘an arid, sterile and tight trading bloc against the East’.
Subsequent Labour leaders have been similarly hard-headed, willing where necessary to assert British national interests in domestic politics.
For all this, Corbyn’s perpetual search for ‘constructive ambiguity’ is inflaming tensions in Labour.
As Harold Clarke and colleagues have written: ‘Brexit has strong potential to destabilise what is already a fragmenting and shaky party system’.
The Tories are often perceived to be the party that is most fundamentally divided over UK membership. Yet Labour is at least as torn.
James Blitz of The Financial Times rightly concluded the party is, ‘as divided over Brexit as the Conservatives. Perhaps more so’.
There has been speculation that divisions over European policy within Labour’s ranks will lead to the formation of a breakaway party. Change UK has already been established, followed by defections this summer to the Liberal Democrats.
In 1981, four prominent Labour politicians (including the former European Commissioner, Roy Jenkins) left the Labour party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) after Labour formally supported British withdrawal from Europe.
So a further rupture within Labour led by a grouping that did not believe the party was providing sufficiently rigorous opposition to Brexit would have major consequences for the future dynamics and shape of British politics.
While Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to handling Labour party policy on EU membership has been less of a dramatic break with the past than implied by many commentators, there is a fundamental difference between Wilson and Corbyn.
Ultimately, Wilson strongly endorsed Britain staying in the EEC, having sought membership as Prime Minister in 1967.
Labour’s then leader believed that the European continent would form a powerful trading bloc rivalling the United States and Soviet Russia.
If Britain remained outside the EEC further relative economic decline, Wilson believed, was inevitable. He argued that if the UK decided, ‘to take our bat home…sinking into an off-shore mentality’, the consequences for the British economy and the UK’s world role would be devastating.
Corbyn, however, is known to be much more suspicious of the entire European project, believing that immersion in the EU’s capitalist club will constrain the implementation of socialist policies.
There is another, absolutely crucial difference between Wilson and Corbyn.
Labour’s then leader was popular with many working-class voters, who swept the party unexpectedly back to power in 1974, and then voted to stay in the EEC.
The contrast with the party’s position today in Northern and Midlands’ seats populated by traditional Labour voters is, to say the least, striking.